Monday, April 21, 2014

Cold as Ice

Iceland Air layover

Let's just cut to the chase. How can anyone not want to go to Iceland? I mean, seriously. Iceland's name alone screams out to you for a wide-eyed visit. Like many people out there I'd imagine, from the time I first heard the word Iceland, I was really curious about the place and I'm guessing I wouldn't have been so interested if it was named something like The Republic of North Atlantica. Just sayin'.

Is the entire country one big sheet of ice? Do they like lots of ice in their drinks? Are Ice T, Vanilla Ice, and Ice Cube worshiped as some sort of god-like figures there? Well, we arrived in January prepared to find out the answers to these questions and some real ones too.

From the moment I spotted the frosty waves of the Atlantic crashing against Iceland's sooty soil from the plane, I couldn't believe I was actually there. Funnily, it's the kind of place where even when you are there, you still don't believe it. As you're walking around Reykjavik, the city you know is the capital of the nation of Iceland, looking at signs in the Icelandic language, your mind still tries to trick you into thinking that maybe you've landed in a place that's similar to Iceland like Norway or Alaska, but not really in Iceland. Because after all, being in Iceland would be too crazy. But yet there you are.

Blue lagoon iceland

Iceland air Reykjavik layover

Essentially, our trip to Iceland was a three night layover on the way back to the States, so we knew we couldn't get a ton of things done. We pretty much just wanted to walk around Reykjavik, go to the Blue Lagoon, and see the Northern Lights, and I'm happy to report that we were lucky enough to pull all three of them off. Reykjavik is a rustic little harbor town, and its Hallgrímskirkja Church is really the only sight on the skyline. It is an awesome church though, that exudes solemn Norse charm. I was a big fan of the Leif Erikson statue out front that was given as a gift from the United States, as I've always respected the work he did stepping foot on North American soil 500 years before Christoper Columbus.

Hallgrímskirkja Reykjavik church

Hallgrímskirkja Reykjavik church

Leif Erikson statue Reykjavik

Hallgrímskirkja Church Reykjavik

The Blue Lagoon, a stony and steamy geothermal bath, was something out of another world. It's really famous and overrun by tourists and all that cool stuff, but somehow that didn't take away from the experience one iota. We frolicked around in the balmy blue waters for hours just shaking our head at how crazy it was to be there. Or was that to get the mud masks off?

Blue Lagoon Iceland

Blue Lagoon Iceland

Blue Lagoon Iceland

While wading in the Blue Lagoon and walking around Reykjavik are slam dunks to tick off a to-do list, the Northern Lights are a fickle phenomenon, and you need a little luck on your side to see them. You see, even as far north as Iceland is, you are never guaranteed to see them. What you end up doing in the end is paying for a bus with a tour guide who drives you out into the country, leaves you in a field, and then instructs you to look up. I'm not joking. Luckily after seeing a dull green glow in the sky for an hour or so, the lights came out to play and while their appearance was briefer than I would have liked, I was still marveled. They came, went, then at one point danced across the sky, and although the moment was more fleeting than I was dreaming of and the pictures I took were slightly cruder than I was hoping for, it was unmistakably the Northern Lights, and it was one of the coolest things I have ever seen.

northern lights tour iceland

northern lights tour iceland

northern lights tour iceland

The only reason I can think of for not wanting to go to Iceland is that it is too cold there, but we all know the story about how the Vikings named it Iceland just to scare people off, so don't be one of them. Be scared to visit Greenland, that's the really cold one.

"Cold As Ice" by Foreigner
Album: Foreigner

Monday, March 10, 2014

Pictures I Took Of ... London at Christmas

“Pictures I Took Of ...” is a series of posts I run when I don't really feel like writing much, but I still want to do the right thing and chuck something up here. Enjoy.

Well, we finally made it to London and we got bonus points because it was Christ-massy London! Yes, we shopped on Oxford Street, saw the guards play holiday songs at Buckingham Palace, and went ice skating at Somerset House. We even rode on the red double-deckers, wiping their steamy windows just barely clean enough to get views of Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, the London Eye, and Big Ben.

We stayed in a neighborhood called Brixton, and the bus home, the 159, went right though all of those iconic places. It was on that bus home and at the ultra-cool and gritty Brixton Village market, with a mouth full of Chinese dumplings or Thai food, where I fell a little in love with London. I sure hope there's room for one more on the bandwagon.

Yep, it's the place from Love Actually

Changing of the crowds at Buckingham Palace

3 French Hens and 2 decker buses ... 

Monday, February 24, 2014

In Dulci Jubilo

Tyrol is one of those exceptional regions that you’ll inevitably stumble across when planning a trip to Europe. You’ll especially hear about it if you’re heading over for some snow-white winter fun. Tyrol may not be as famous as Burgundy, Tuscany, or Bavaria, but it’s a solid Mid-Major in the sport of Europe travel.

Sounds good Scott, what country is Tyrol in again?

Well, that’s where things get a bit more complicated. Tyrol is definitely a defined region, but it definitely isn't specific to one country. I mean, it’s mostly located in Austria, but some of it is in Italy, but an autonomous and very independent part of Italy. Also, a solid majority of Tyrol residents speak German. Yeah, I know, it’s a little complicated. All of that complication is to do with some things called history, borders, and wars, but it would take me way to long to explain all of it here, so let’s just get to the good stuff.

Our first stop in Tyrol was Innsbruck, Austria and it didn't take long to see why they call Innsbruck the capital of the Alps.

Innsbruck is the kind of place where you are walking down the street looking at frosted mountain peaks one second, a rapid river the next, and then all-of-the-sudden an Olympic ski jump track comes into view. Innsbruck has hosted the Winter Olympics twice, and it was the perfect place for us to spend a day going for the gold in Tandem Mulled Wine Drinking and Slalom Sausage Eating at their Christmas market. We even ran into former Blues and Predators NHL Goaltender Chris Mason in Innsbruck, who was enjoying the Christmas market with his family. Well, he was enjoying it until some dude decided to but-in to talk hockey with him and to ask him if he remembered when the dude waited on him at a restaurant he used to work at in St. Louis. If you're wondering, he kinda-sorta remembered me.

Chris is playing in Italy now, and that was our next stop. The Tyrolean town of Bolzano had been on my radar for a while, and in my opinion, it was the absolute perfect way to end the Christmas Market Crawl. We checked in, and then rushed to the town funicular that took us into the Alps where we were able to get a burnt orange view of a particularly beautiful bit of the Italian Alps called The Dolomites at sunset. Bolzano's Christmas market featured a fun little section where they had set up a ton of Christmas trees in a tucked-away courtyard, and it really felt like a little hidden holiday forest. We grabbed our obligatory wine and just got lost in the pines listening to Christmas tunes recounting tales from the last two weeks.

When I look back, there's no doubt that the Christmas Market Crawl is a bit of a blur. I mean, we ended up seeing 18 markets in 9 towns in just over two weeks after all. But come to think of it, I’m not sure if it was all the places we saw in such a short span of time that make it a blur, or just all that mulled wine.

In Dulci Jubilo

Friday, February 21, 2014

Art Around the World

© Claire Desjardins
While the places we travel to around the globe may differ in their location, their size, and their geography, there are a few things that it seems we all want to do no matter where we go.

First off, we want to seek out any famous landmarks that may be in the city an view them with our own eyes. Secondly, we absolutely must sample the local food and drink. Thirdly, whether we are art lovers or not, we tend to feel the need to go into a museum and, you know, appreciate the art. It’s funny, because, even though I don’t pretend to be an art aficionado, one of the first things I ever did on European soil was go to the National Gallery in London. There is just something travelly about being in a foreign museum looking at works by world famous artists or masters of modern sculpture. Here are a few of my favorite art experiences from the last few years.

Van Gogh Museum - Amsterdam

There are many places that claim a bit of Vincent Van Gogh, as he lived and painted many places in Europe over the course of his short life, but none more so than The Netherlands. The Netherlands was his birthplace, and a place where he spent a good chunk of his life, so that makes the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam an extra special place to visit. You don’t have to be an art expert to appreciate his distinct brushwork techniques and use of complimentary colors, either. It was great to learn a little more about the man besides the fact that he cut his own ear off, which for some reason, really, really, seems to stick with people. I found it fascinating that he actually created Starry Night, one of his most famous pieces while he was holed up in an asylum. So, basically, Starry Night is a “what I see out of my window“ type of work.

Salvador Dali Exhibit at Reina Sofia in Madrid

There is no doubt that I had heard the name Salvador Dali before I came to Madrid, but I didn't have the slightest clue as to what he had created. Well, after visiting the exhibit on his work at Madrid’s famous Reina Sofia, I knew a ton more about his eccentric life, and found out that I already knew some of his works, I just didn't know they were his. We had toured a few rooms of his art to start, appreciating his style the best we could, when we walked around a corner and saw what is probably his most famous work, “The Persistance of Memory”. You might also know this work as “the melting clocks on trees painting”, well it was fascinating to see this work up close and learn about the twists and turns his life took from Spain to Hollywood.

East Side Gallery - Berlin

Although not a traditional art installation, the graffiti-covered section of the Berlin Wall is a moving and though-provoking sight definitely worth seeing when in Berlin. We walked this gallery in November during a really cold snap, but that didn't get in the way of us being moved by all the messages of hope for Berlin that artists in the early 90’s had painted for her.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Winter Wonderland

When Americans go to Europe, they are typically showered with all sorts of advice from their family, friends, and that person they work with who studied in Italy for a semester back in college. Paramount among this advice is usually the purchase of a rail pass. We are all pretty much told that the only way to see the continent is from the window of a train carriage, and if you don't buy a pass, you'll probably die. I tend to agree with that notion, except for the dying part. From what Julia has told me, this is pretty much the complete opposite of what goes on in the UK. When they plot their plans to see mainland Europe, it is usually done via a low-cost airline's website and a weekend hotel booking.

That made the fact that we decided to travel by trains all December a nice little back story of the Christmas Market Crawl. We didn't buy a rail pass, but instead just made sure to buy our tickets online a couple weeks before, and the prices we paid were, well, whatever the German word for "steal" is. Before last year, train was the only way I had ever gotten around Europe, but in 2012 we mostly moved around the continent on buses or low cost airlines. I had bragged to Julia about how much fun I had riding the rails around Europe in the past, and looked forward to showing her how fun it could be this time around. It was in Austria where I think she really saw how great an awe-inspiring experience European rail travel can be. The scenery was gorgeous, the trains were spotless, and the service was exemplary. Almost everyday, we would hustle on to the train at the last minute, settle in, and enjoy a coffee while we got some work done by the window.

I’m telling you, this is the way to travel Europe.

After Vienna, we spent a couple nights in a Salzburg apartment, another amazing one from Flipkey. This apartment was right next to a little babbling brook and served as the perfect setting to warm up on homemade peppermint mochas before we went out into the snowy night. Our apartment was a quick walk from the Christmas market, so close that one night we got out of the cold for a couple hours to watch a Christmas movie, and then darted back out just in time for gluhwein last call. Salzburg had always been on my “maybe” list on previous trips to Europe, and I am glad to say I finally made it. It's just perfect. Perfect size, perfect setting, and just perfectly elegant vibe.

We enjoyed a couple nights in Salzburg and then took the train into the Alps to visit the Christmas market in the the ski town of Grossarl. This was probably the highlight of our time in this region of Austria, as Grossarl was another one of those snow globe type places, where if you're like us, you dream about all year. It was in Grossarl where I started to put together that it really doesn't matter the size of the city the Christmas market is held in or how famous the market is, it’s all about the atmosphere.

At a certain point, gluhwein is gluhwein and the food and stalls at all the markets are all pretty similar, but when you get the chance to walk to the top of a small alpine village and admire its church covered in a blanket of fresh snow, that is really something special.

"Winter Wonderland" by Bernard & Smith

Thursday, January 16, 2014

In A Day: Nara, Japan

Here is a post by a friend about Nara, Japan. You'll find out more about the author at the end of the article. Enjoy. 

It’s not all deer in Nara but this may very well be the drawing point for the majority of tourists who visit.

This ancient city is often overlooked as tourists flock to the bigger districts around Japan and its more famous neighbor Kyoto. But, if you want to escape the bright lights then Nara offers plenty of scenic and historic sites making it the perfect day trip. While I never endorse less than two days to experience any international destination, Nara is easily doable as a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka as the majority of sites are close to each other.

For the more adventurous, make sure you stay overnight in one of the many authentic Japanese guest houses.

Traveling from Kyoto or Osaka on the Japan Railways (JR) train is pleasant and takes under an hour. TIP: If you are visiting multiple regions make sure you get the Japan Rail pass which offers unlimited travel on almost all JR trains including the often blurry Shinkasen (bullet train).

Once you arrive, head straight for the well-known Nara Park which embraces a host of Nara’s main attractions including Kasuga Taisha and Todaiji Temple. Stroll through the park and you are bound to find one of the hundreds of freely roaming deer throughout the park. In the past, killing one of these deer was considered a capital offense and was punishable by death but these days the deer are merely designated as National Treasures. Don’t be afraid to get up and close as the deer are more used to tourists than even you are. Make sure you purchase some readily available “deer-crackers” to feed the deer.

The large number of deer used to be considered sacred due to a visit by one of the four gods of Kasuga Shrine. The registered UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kasuga Taisha  is a celebrated shrine that is responsible for the protection of the city. The brilliant red colored pillars and 3,000 stone and bronze lanterns are just some of the astonishing features of the sacred site.

A mere 10 minutes’ walk away is Todaiji Temple. As you enter through the central gate you are greeted by yet more deer. Walk up to the main hall (Daibutsuden) which is the world’s largest wooden building and houses one of Japan’s large bronze statues of Buddha. As you circle the statue towards the back, you’ll see a wooden column with a hole through its base. The hole is exactly the same size as one of the Great Buddha’s nostrils. Legend states that anyone who can squeeze through the hole will be ensured enlightenment in the next life.

Nearby, make sure you experience the picturesque, moss covered Isuien Garden. The attractive "garden founded on water" dates back to the 17th century and consists of two separate gardens as well as a number of tea houses scattered throughout. Can you spot the crane and the tortoise on the two islands?

So when is the best time to head to Nara? October and November is a great time if you want to take in the beautiful autumn foliage – perfect for photos. But people also tend to pick March and April so they can enjoy the cherry blossom.

Nara is not to be missed. Whether you spend a day or a stay for a few nights you are bound to enjoy the wonders of this historic city.

Justin Hendry is a travel writer for InsureandGo travel insurance – Besides what could be described as a travel addiction, he is currently busy completing his Bachelor of Media at Macquarie University, and when he can; enjoys reading and music.

Photo Credit